The Impact of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Comedy

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There has been enough talk about the political implications of this weekend’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. What about its impact on comedy? Its success as comedy? The acts broadcast from the stage have gotten a mixed reaction (ranging from safe to esoteric). But the comic bits Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert performed were only a tiny part of what I felt was a great moment for comedy, and great comedy. The rally’s immediate impact ought to be: “More of this, please.”

If you were like most who attended the rally, you couldn’t hear a thing that was happening on stage. And really, it didn’t matter. The rally experience was instead everything else that happened on the Mall, and that is what’s going to be remembered. By bringing the Daily Show to the front of the Capitol Building, the rally has hopefully expanded the notion of at least where comedy is possible. Like a Happening, the comedy was wrapped up in the event itself. The rally was almost the reverse counterpart to Andy Kaufman reading the Great Gatsby as stand up: it worked as a moment of levity wedged into an entirely serious context.

That context includes the coverage itself: I watched the local DC news on Saturday night, and the anchors kept calling the rally by its proper name, enunciating the mouthful “and or fear” every time they mentioned it. At no point did they betray any awareness that the name itself is just darn funny, or that a gathering in the name of a cause and its opposite might be just a teeny bit absurd. Either they didn’t get it, or they were being pushed to the limits of their professionalism. This was comedy seeping out into the real world.

The people who came out on Saturday supported the cause of sanity and moderation but, honestly, they just knew they were going to have a good time. Those interviewed in the audience tended to say things like this: “The battle for the American mind right now is between talk show hosts and comedians. I choose the comedians.” While supporting the cause, the rally goers also came out in support of the joke.

At the back of everyone’s minds was Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally. If that was not the direct cause of the Daily Show rally, it was its background. Stewart and Colbert made the pre-announcement to their announcement of the rally in the days right after Glenn Beck’s, when cable news was breathlessly anointing Beck as a leader of national importance, with comparisons to both Martin Luther King and Woodstock. Of course that was all bullshit, and the Daily Show knew it was bullshit.

This is the rally’s prank side. It was a dare along the lines of this summer’s

“>”Can a Poodle in a Tinfoil Hat Get More Fans Than Glenn Beck?”

Facebook page. It’s easy to get Beck’s angry, frothy fans to gather for anything. Stewart picked the most passionless cause imaginable – moderation – as a gathering point to show that all of TV news’s fawning coverage of Restoring Honor and the Tea Party movement was misinformed. According to yesterday’s crowd estimates, the Rally for Sanity and/or Fear gathered 2.5 times as many people as Beck’s Restoring Honor did.

Successful prank.

From the beginning, both Stewart and Colbert emphasized audience participation. Stewart asked his viewers to create moderate political signs. Colbert told his to dress up in their most frightening Halloween costumes. The audience complied, and the “user generated content” of the rally ended up as its most innovative and entertaining part. On Sunday, the front pages of both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran pictures of the rally—not of the stage or of the giant crowd, but of funny signs. The Huffington Post’s slideshow on the best signs of the rally is currently 422 pages long. Clever signs have always been central to activism, and this both parodied and honored that tradition. But it also felt like a marker-and-cardboard version of Twitter, where the trending topic of #Sanity appeared in the flesh all in one place. This may be the most far-reaching innovation of the rally. The Daily Show has given their audience the opportunity to participate and feel like a community. We Are All Comedians Now.

This was an ambitious rally. It aimed and succeeded at being many things at once. It was political and comical without sacrificing the impact of either. It was a satire on the news and a lampoon of Glenn Beck-style demagoguery that still made people feel good about themselves and reminded Americans of their better natures. It will certainly be repeated, maybe not in this exact form, if not because Stewart and Colbert haven’t finished their work, then at least because success begets success, and Comedy Central will feel the pressure to make the next one bigger, better. We’ll still be there to help.

If, as the Washington Post claimed, the Rally was our generation’s Woodstock, let’s just take a moment to appreciate that our Woodstock was run by comedians.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.